As you listen to the snappy dialogue in George Abbott and Philip Dunning's 1926 "Broadway," you realize something is missing.
You're used to hearing lines like "I like a dame that can sit in a Morris chair and fill it" or "Listen, honey, how 'bout gettin' hitched up?" with a lot of blips and static on the soundtrack and grainy black and white images on the screen.
"Broadway," a melodrama that takes place backstage in a Prohibition era nightclub, is a period piece. Its intrigues and murders are not intended to help you understand the mystery of life, just to entertain you.
When you see a period piece on celluloid it's easy to make allowances for what time has made naive. On stage, however, with actual bodies saying the lines, it seems merely campy unless the overall feeling of the past is so powerful you can believe people once actually talked that way.
In this production, which opened on author-director George Abbott's 100th birthday, you're aware of how tightly written the play is, how well it captures the odd energies of the time, but you can't help feeling the production is too mechanical to convey much except the dated quality of the play.
A few of the performances have the necessary juice to enliven the evening. Richard Poe is particularly forceful as the pivotal gangster and Eugene J. Anthony is believably funny as one of his sidekicks. Maureen Sadusk, a solid character actress, does well as a battlescarred songstress, and David Rogers is properly beleaguered as a careworn impresario.
On the part of many - such as Lonny Price and Peggy Taphorn, the romantic leads, Dorothy Stanley, a moll, or Joseph Culliton, a detective - there is a likeable earnestness, but it is not enough to make us care about the characters.
John Enzell's set has a comic period glamor, Jeanne Button's costumes a suitable raffishness. The production was first done a few weeks ago in Cleveland as part of a celebration of Abbott's extraordinary career. The euphoria of the occasion must have filled in the hollow spots most of the cast - and the play itself - have trouble concealing.
What better way to celebrate your 100th birthday than to open a new show on Broadway? That is precisely what George Abbott did at the Royale Theater last night, with a new production of his first hit, way back in 1926, called, aptly enough, just "Broadway."
Happy Birthday, Mr. Abbott. Unfortunately the show has not worn quite so gracefully as Mr. Abbott. At present it does not seem so resilient as, say, "The Front Page."
This current production - still crisply and sassily directed by Abbott himself - originated at the Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland, and it has a very winning authenticity of style and period.
The play was co-written with Philip Dunning, and there had, in fact, been two earlier versions of the script by Dunning himself, but it seems that the Abbott touch was crucial to the play's success.
The story is set in a Broadway ginmill during Prohibition, a speakeasy with a cabaret attached, complete with chorines who talk as if they had learned English out of Variety, and bootleggers who in skirmishing for their territory, shoot first and leg boots later.
The hero is a hoofer who dreams of a showbiz coronation at the Palace, the heroine is a virgin caught in this den of iniquity, and the villain is a gangster of the nastiest sort. The boy loses the girl. The boy gets the girl. They dance off together into the limelight.
Angles with dirty faces, tarts with hears of gold, tough nuts, true-blue cops, comic waiters, and smilingly vicious gorillas abound. Dialogue is slangy, salty, and brisk.
When the play was new there even used to be a glossary in the playbill - but in 61 years you can easily pass from a novelty into a cliche. And comedy melodrama is only really in fashion on television, where they do it with more blood, more visible violence, and more overt glamor.
I found myself wondering why "Broadway" now seems dated, while so many of the Hollywood gangster classics - admittedly made after the end of Prohibition in 1933 - remain as fresh today, in their own stylized fashion, as Brian de Palma's "The Untouchables."
Probably it is simply a matter of credibility. The movie is frozen into being the real thing, not a reconstruction of a period object. Whereas "Broadway" is just that, a beautifully done reconstruction, but with actors and audiences out of touch with its genre.
For it to be successful on stage it possibly needs a certain distance to be placed between the play now and the play then. I'm not suggesting it should be turned into Brecht's macabre political pastiche "Arturo Ui," but it does need more of an attitude, a more contemporary tone for present sensibilities.
As a period piece it creaks more than it charms; yet, and let me be fair, as a period piece it has been very lovingly restored. A few minor cuts have been made in the printed text, but the vernacular, almost Runyonesque, dialogue has been preserved intact, and the softcore, hardbitten atmosphere carefully evoked.
Abbott at 100 remains a grand master. In Japan he would be named a national monument, or a Living Treasure.
Everything that could be done to jerk the play into life he has done. The staging is immaculate, down to every move. John Ezell's scenery has the right mixture of seediness and tatty grandeur, Jeanna Button's costumes possess museum charm but genuine prettiness, and Donald Saddler's deliciously observed choreography for the marionette-style chorus line is perfect.
Lonny Price as the hero-hoofer - the role that made Lee Tracy a star - is feisty, funny, and very beguiling. He is rather more credible than the goody-goody chorine of Peggy Taphorn, or the small-time gang boss of Richard Poe, but both of these get the right manner of the piece.
Maureen Sadusk is fine as Lil Rice, the singer who has seen better nights and leaner days, Kurt Ziskie, Eugene J. Anthony and Hal Robinson score as variously assorted hoods, and the chorus kids, in varying states of fading disrepair, are fine.
The trouble is that while we all need and love Mr. Abbott, I wonder Broadway is now ready for "Broadway"...or vice versa.
George Abbott defines the word indomitability. Turning 100 yesterday and entering his second century, he has a history almost as long as that of the American theater.
To mark his birthday, he directed a revival of ''Broadway'' as a feature of the recent Abbott centennial celebration at the Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland. Last night he brought the play back to Broadway (opening at the Royale Theater). Staging the same show 61 years after it established his reputation as a director and playwright is certainly a remarkable feat of longevity. Unfortunately, that is the evening's only distinction.
This backstage melodrama - a tale of bootleggers, chorus girls and hoofers - is like a ship yanked out of a mothball fleet. Without an extensive overhaul, it is not stageworthy. At the very least, it needs a fresh coat of paint.
''Broadway'' (co-written by Philip Dunning and Mr. Abbott) dwindles next to ''The Front Page,'' a two-fisted newspaper farce from the same era. It is also overshadowed by the new movie version of ''The Untouchables,'' which far more vividly captures the excitement of the Prohibition period. The principal surprise of the revival of ''Broadway'' is that the play seems so pallid.
Here we are at the Paradise Night Club, watching chorines quick-change costumes and exchange insults. ''Broadway'' is not a musical. That means we see only the prelude and the tag-end to kick choruses, as Lonny Price as the hoofer-hero, Roy Lane, leads his ladies on stage. The dancers are dressed, alternately, as pirates, schoolgirls and patriotic symbols, but their routines - what we see of them - are largely interchangeable. This is apparently intended as a joke, but ends by being simply repetitive.
The plot deals with the conflict between a gangster and the hoofer (the role played in the original Broadway production by Lee Tracy, who, coincidentally, also played the lead in ''The Front Page'') over the hand of the ingenue, a hopeful dancer with her head high in the clouds. It would be difficult to say which half of the play - the backstage romance or the gangland battle - is less interesting.
One reason to revive ''Broadway'' would be as a showcase for talented young actors. This was at least partly the case in a production of the play seen a decade ago (on Mr. Abbott's 90th birthday) at the Berkshire Theater Festival in Stockbridge, Mass.
The Great Lakes version is, with one exception, not in that class, and it is, in fact, even less stylish than the last visitor from the Great Lakes Theater, the 1986 revival of ''Arsenic and Old Lace.'' Mr. Price, who was added to the cast for the New York engagement of ''Broadway,'' manages to make Roy Lane likeable even as he egregiously asserts his own egotism. He is the sort of man who can tell his sweetheart and would-be dancing partner, ''You got talent, kid - when I bring it out.''
In the other leading roles, Peggy Taphorn is less than engaging as the ingenue and Richard Poe stresses the gangster's oiliness. His henchmen are, for the most part, bland, and the chorus girls, as they go through their ritualistic numbers, often seem ill at ease, although Maureen Sadusk adds a bit of life to her stereotypical character.
Despite the addition of choreography by Donald Saddler, the production lacks imagination and the classic Abbott touch. For example, a late night soiree for the gangsters and the chorus girls takes place behind a sliding door at the rear of the stage. Periodically, the door opens to offer a glimpse of pretended revelry, climaxing with the disconcerting sight of a dancer hanging by her feet.
The evening's few dramatic moments, such as the first-act killing that triggers the plot, are staged perfunctorily. The pistol shot sounds like the puff of a popgun. Despite the frequently stated claim that this is an example of a well-made play, there is not ample action to sustain the play over three acts. At the end of each act, the show wilts, and the end of the evening seems to leave the audience wondering if the play has really finished.
''Broadway'' does, of course, serve as a thesaurus of period dialogue. Gangsters are ''gorillas,'' and characters demand, ''Listen, smalltime'' and ''Listen, Billie, crack wise'' (meaning ''wise up''). Similarly, there is a touch of 1920's vaudeville in the air. Making their debut as a team, Mr. Price and his partner are happy to be told by an agent that he can offer them ''Chambersburg and Pottsville next week.'' The revival, itself, seems better suited to summer touring than to Broadway.